John Waters has had underwhelming meals in overpriced restaurants – so you don’t have to.
He’s been caught in long airport security lines. He’s taken the BoltBus to New York City and been delayed while the driver took a dump in the on-board restroom. He’s had to sit in a doctor’s waiting room with an embarrassing ailment and been barraged with questions from other patients who recognize him and demand to know what he’s got.
Now the Baltimore-based filmmaker and writer, who just turned 73, has put all of those experiences and more into a book of opinions and advice, presumably so people won’t have to endure what he has. Called “Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder,” it’s his ninth book, and it came out this week. He’s described it as “my opinion on everything” and “how to avoid respectability at 70 years old.”
Readers will discover that “Mr. Know-It-All” isn’t just a book about coping with life’s indignities and humiliations, even though there’s plenty of guidance about that. It’s also part memoir, part celebrity tell-all, and part movie industry guidebook with separate chapters about each of his last seven films, all filmed in Baltimore (“Polyester,” “Hairspray,” “Cry-Baby,” “Serial Mom,” “Pecker,” “Cecil B. Demented” and “A Dirty Shame.”)
The book is filled with anecdotes about many of the actors he’s worked with, including Kathleen Turner, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman and, of course, Divine. There’s the time Waters turned down Brad Pitt at an audition for “Cry-Baby” because Pitt was too handsome to be cast as Depp’s sidekick – a decision that he thinks makes him perhaps “the only director who ever said no to Brad Pitt.” He remembers that Rikki Lake lost her virginity halfway through “Cry-Baby;” how he called Tab Hunter out of the blue to star in “Polyester,” and how he battled with motion picture censors to let him use the word “Pecker” as a movie title.
Other readers may be drawn to his essays about non-cinematic subjects, which range from art collecting and Brutalist architecture to Yippie protests, Andy Warhol, and taking LSD at 70. In one chapter, he names the one female he has adored since childhood. In another, he imagines returning to the apartment he lived in during the 1960s – a sign that, in some cases, you can go home again (especially when you still live in the town where you grew up.)
“Mr. Know-It-All is here to tell you exactly how to live your life,” he writes early in the book. “I’m never wrong.”
Though the title says it’s a book of wisdom, this is not a rehashed litany of someone else’s platitudes. All the advice he offers grows out of his own experiences. As a result, readers gain insights into the maker of “Pink Flamingos” and “Female Trouble” by learning what he’s gone through and how he dealt with it.
One of those insights is that Waters can be quite frugal and down to earth. He not only takes the inexpensive BoltBus to New York but also goes to a Laundromat when he spends the summers in Provincetown. (And of course, he hitchhiked across the country and wrote about it in his bestseller, “Carsick.”)
In many of his stories, Waters reveals a knack for handling even the most humiliating situations with humor and aplomb. He also says he licks important packages before he puts them in the mail – “to remove any ‘curse’ of show business rejection” – and instructs his staff to do the same. In the LSD chapter, he mentions texting “my boyfriend,” whom he never names.
Waters in on a national tour to launch his book, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. West Coast stops include ticketed events at The Green Arcade at the McRoskey Mattress Loft, 1687 Market Street in San Francisco on May 30 at 7 p.m., and Book Soup at The Renberg Theatre (Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village), 1125 N, McCadden Place in Los Angeles on June 1 at 7 p.m.
Waters recently sat down at his home for an interview with the Blade to talk about his book and his life as a filth elder. The interview has been condensed.
BLADE: A good alternative title for your book would be “The Influencer,” don’t you think? How To Win Friends and Influence People 2?
JOHN WATERS: I’m Norman Vincent Peale, you’re saying?
BLADE: You do give a lot of advice: Come up with a gimmick. Have backup plans. Get at least one other person to believe in you. Sound advice, with a John Waters twist.
WATERS: I agree with that totally.
BLADE: Why an advice book?
WATERS: Well, I always kind of parody things, so I thought an advice book coming from me would be kind of a parody in the first place. I needed that kind of genre to be able to talk about all the things I wanted to talk about.
In some ways it’s like “Shock Value” because “Shock Value” ended right before we made “Polyester,” so this has the rest of the movies in it. But I also wrote it from a viewpoint of how to tell young filmmakers how to deal with Hollywood and what happens and all that kind of stuff, and how you fail upward. And then the other subjects I had to put in — about love, about fashion, about art, about death, about every possible thing. But to talk about them all, you need a theme that runs through the whole thing, so that’s how I came up with [giving] advice.
Do I expect every person to follow my advice? No, but I believe that I gave good advice. It’s not really told ironically. I believe everything I say in it. But I hoped to write a humorous book at the same time.
BLADE: Who are you giving advice to?
WATERS: I’m giving advice, first of all, to the people that like my work, because they’re hopefully the first people that buy the book. Secondly, even if you don’t know anything about me, I’m giving advice to younger people about how to handle what’s coming, failure and success, in your life if you’ve chosen to be in the arts in any way. So I think I’m trying to give advice to anybody probably younger than me, because older than me are dead, you know. And I tell you how to beat that too.
BLADE: You’re not writing just for the hardcore fans?
WATERS: No, not at all. If you’re never seen any of my movies, you can still read the book.
BLADE: A lot of your fans may be the ‘others’ in society, those who don’t fit in or conform, the people in “Desperate Living” and other movies.
WATERS: The people that used to be the ‘others’ in society are often now the leaders. Everybody wants to be the ‘other’ now. They didn’t used to. Even Trump would probably want to be an outsider. Obama thought he was an outsider. Everybody wants to be an outsider, and I want to be an insider. I said that in “Make Trouble,” that it’s more fun to cause trouble from within. Which is what “Hairspray” did.
BLADE: But a lot of the others aren’t the ones who would typically be disposed to take advice.
WATERS: Maybe from me they might.
BLADE: Why should someone follow your advice?
WATERS: You don’t have to. I think you could read the book and not follow one bit of it and still enjoy the book. You don’t have to. I don’t expect anybody to, really.
BLADE: Your advice grows out of your experiences. It’s not warmed-over Norman Vincent Peale. And because it comes from within, your advice in turn provides insights into you.
WATERS: I always thought that is a joke, that book, which I probably never read. But my parents had it and it was such a thing then that it became a joke in a way. That same title could apply to this book.
BLADE: The other thing about your advice is, you chronicle all the ways you’ve suffered indignities. You’ve had bad dinners at good restaurants. You’ve had bad seats on international flights. You’ve been harassed at the doctor’s office.
WATERS: I’m also saying all the wonderful things that happened to me. So basically, there are different kinds of problems. It is a high-class problem to worry about being recognized in a doctor’s office. It’s the one time that it’s really bad to be seen. Although, if you weren’t [famous], you wouldn’t have gotten the appointment. So in the long run, it isn’t bad.
BLADE: Do bad things happen to you more than most, like Joe Btfsplk in “Li’l Abner?”
WATERS: No. I say in the book, not one bad thing has ever happened to me from being famous, in any way. It really hasn’t. I mean, high-class problems, some of the things I talk about. But, generally, I can bitch about flying all the time. Bitch about first class, which is really bold. But I get to fly all the time, and I don’t pay for it. But I’m working, you know? So I’m trying to tell people that when bad things happen to them, they can use it and how they can appreciate it and how they can look back on it and it doesn’t mean really anything terrible.
BLADE: You bring up all these universal things that anybody can identify with, and you’ve come out on the other side, none the worse for wear from the indignities you’ve suffered.
WATERS: Everybody has indignities.
BLADE: Are you more sensitive to things than others?
WATERS: No, I don’t think so. I think I notice them more and it’s more, like, ludicrous, some of the problems that you get from being known.
BLADE: And then you use it for comic relief.
WATERS: Yeah, comic relief. In my own life, even.
BLADE: Is there one disappointment that tops them all?
WATERS: I only regret one thing, smoking cigarettes. It’s the only thing I regret in life. Because I’ll probably die from it. I mean, I don’t have cancer, but I’m just saying that, both my parents died from some form of cancer. They were 90 though. They had a long, good life. So, yes, I regret smoking cigarettes.
BLADE: You lived through all these indignities, and that’s a sign that others can too.
WATERS: The other day in New York somebody yelled at me, a homeless person, ‘You’re still alive?’ Which really made me laugh. I thought, ‘Well, yes I am, are you?’
BLADE: You and the Queen of England ought to compare notes.
WATERS: She probably has some really good ones.
BLADE: Is this book political?
WATERS: Sure it is. All humor is political. And this book, definitely. I have a whole chapter, ACT BAD, which is really [suggesting ways] to go further than ACT UP did. I think comedy is political, trying to get you to laugh at things. I think every chapter in this book is political.
But the worst way you can be political [is to] rant. If you get people to laugh, they’ll listen. If you lecture, in a strident tone, like Elizabeth Warren, no one will pay attention. Even though I totally agree with her politics, I hate to hear her talk. She’s never said a funny thing in her life. So the thing is, it’s important, if you want to change people’s minds, to make them laugh. It’s the first way to get their attention.
BLADE: Does your book have any bombshells in it? Landing Tab Hunter for “Polyester?” Not casting Brad Pitt when he auditioned?
WATERS: That’s not up to me to say. The only thing I could think in there, maybe, is the [taking] LSD thing, in a way. That’s the stunt of the book. That’s something that I did that I thoroughly enjoyed. I think if there’s a sentimental chapter in the book about friendship, then maybe that is that. If I had known how strong the LSD was that I took, I probably would have been uptight. But I didn’t and it was great. I spent eight months getting the right acid from the purest source I could find, practically from Timothy Leary’s asshole. The Blade can print that. But the provenance of it was high and it was great. I don’t have to ever do it again. Just like I don’t have to ever hitchhike across the country again. Why would I? I did it. I don’t know if that’s newsworthy, but that would be, maybe.
BLADE: You had a big build-up about it in the book: We don’t know what this is going to do to us. And then you stopped hallucinating and it was OK and the sun rose…
WATERS: It was more than OK. It was great. I never had a bad experience when I was young, or I probably would have never done it. What I wanted to see is, what is it like to do it now, when I’m 70 years old? I certainly would never imagine that many 70-year-olds try to take acid. Especially if you haven’t done it since you were young.
BLADE: Do people still take LSD?
WATERS: Oh yeah. All the young people now do micro-doses. All the people that work in Google. All the tech kids take teeny doses of it. But not many 70-year-olds take it. People I know don’t take it.
BLADE: You write that you tried to get transgender pioneer Christine Jorgensen in a movie. That’s something probably a lot of people don’t know. You’ve sprinkled in all kinds of things that are going to be part of your lore.
WATERS: There are lots of things that people don’t know. But I don’t know that that means it’s Stop the Press. Most everything in the book is probably new information to most people.
BLADE: Who do you wish had been in one of your movies but never was?
WATERS: Always Meryl Streep. But I would have had to stop her from doing a Baltimore accent. And she would have done it brilliantly.
BLADE: Did you have a part for her?
WATERS: You know, at times, any of those movies she could have been in, yeah. We’ve met before, maybe a couple of times, at parties. She’s lovely. But she didn’t say, ‘Oh, I’ve been dying to work with you.’
BLADE: Roseanne Barr has come up.
WATERS: Well, Roseanne, when I dealt with her, she was a liberal. Completely. Yes, she came up a couple of times. I was friendly with her.
BLADE: For “Serial Mom?”
WATERS: Yeah. “And A Dirty Shame.” She was possible for that at one point. So, I was always friends with a liberal. I did her show and everything. Traci Lords was on her show. Who knows? I don’t know. I guess she’s just on the Internet too much.
BLADE: Who was the greatest delight to work with?
WATERS: They all were a delightful, in a way. I mean, making movies is horrible. I say that in the book. Basically, it’s not fun, because there’s so much pressure and you have to do something every day and we’re not going to get this shot and it’s going to be over budget. But they all were team players. That’s what I can say they were.
Somebody said about my mother after she died: She was game. And they were game. They had to be game, to come with us, come to Baltimore, especially joining a group of people that had known each other for 30 years, a lot of them. I didn’t have any trouble with any of them. They were pros. But we were pros to them. I think I was prepared. I knew what to do. It wasn’t like we mistreated them. And they sort of got into the spirit of it.
BLADE: Would you do a word association? Kathleen Turner.
WATERS: A pro. Still see her. Great actress. Stage. Screen. Movies. She could play men, women, anybody with great conviction.
BLADE: Johnny Depp from “Cry-Baby.”
WATERS: I’m on his new album, I hear. I’m not sure how. I remember I talked to him on the phone with Alice Cooper recently and he said: Say this. I don’t remember what I said, so I guess they put it in the album like when I did in The Creep [a song with Nicki Minaj]. Johnny Depp was always a pro with me.
BLADE: Tab Hunter.
WATERS: Well, he voted for Reagan, you know. He used to shock me. He was for Trump, too. He used to laugh when he told me, because he knew how crazy it made me. I love Tab. You know, that’s the thing. He was from a different era. Completely from a different era.
BLADE: Was he like Rock Hudson?
WATERS: Rock Hudson, I don’t know if he was a Republican. Tab, I think was always a Republican. Oh yeah, he was in the closet forever. He had to be. It was illegal. You know. He was loved by every woman in America. It would have ruined his career. And he wrote about all that in his book.
BLADE: Did he write about you?
WATERS: Yeah. He was lovely. I stayed friends with him right up until the end. I just talked to his husband recently. Tab was great. He was a team player too. Lovely to Divine. Matter of fact, he liked the experience so much he went and made a movie with Divine afterwards, called “Lust in the Dust.”
BLADE: Andy Warhol?
WATERS: I remember him at the Baltimore Museum of Art meeting Edith [Massey] and saying, where did you find her? And he was very supportive. He took Fellini to see “Pink Flamingos.” He put Divine on the cover of Interview. He was always supportive.
BLADE: Mink Stole. You named her?
WATERS: Her real name is Nancy Stoll. S-t-o-l-l. I knew her forever. I met her in Provincetown. She was early in my films. She was a character actress, always. She usually played Divine’s enemy. We’ve been friends forever and ever. And I think she’s a really good actor. She still works all the time.
BLADE: Any way to sum up Divine, 31 years after his death?
WATERS: He gets more and more famous as the years go by. And he’d still rather be here. He’d be pissed he’s dead. I’m still shocked he’s dead. I still am. That’s still a shock. But, it’s kind of amazing. Well, we’re all being buried in the same graveyard where he is, you know, all my friends. Obviously, he is still with us.
BLADE: You’ve been good to the guys who commissioned the Divine mural in Baltimore, Jesse Salazar and Tom Williams.
WATERS: They were lovely. Why wouldn’t I be?
BLADE: Your book has only one chapter that’s named after a female.
BLADE: The finger-painting chimp from the Baltimore zoo. You reveal this life-long love affair that you’ve kept secret until now.
WATERS: Well, I didn’t have sex with Betsy. I want to make sure that people understand that.
BLADE: You wrote a chapter about her appearances on TV and about The Golden Age of Monkey Art, which she inspired.
WATERS: I just remembered her in that dress and getting national attention and being all over the country. She was on Garry Moore, who was from Baltimore, too.
BLADE: In the last chapter, you write about death and dying, specifically about your death. You try to imagine what happens after you die, and you go back and visit your first apartment at 315 E. 25th Street in Baltimore. Why so morbid?
WATERS: Is it morbid? I don’t think it’s morbid. I think, who at 70-some years old doesn’t think about that?
BLADE: Why such a potential downer?
WATERS: You think it’s a downer? I don’t think it’s a downer… I think everybody at 73 [thinks about death], and I think my friends think about it more than I do. I don’t think about it that much. But you can’t help it when you go to funerals and you think, I am 73, you know, something is going to get you. So I tried to just imagine beating it, how I could be such a control freak that I would refuse to die. And I do always dream about that apartment, so it is just a fantasy of what happens after you die.
But it was to me dealing with the one subject that you’re really not supposed to joke about or kind of focus on. To think about it was sort of liberating in a way, to go through the whole thing. Except that I want to be sure that just because I write something here to be funny, it doesn’t mean that I want my heirs to follow every single thing. Like I say in there, I don’t want something funny on my tombstone. So, I don’t know. I thought it was optimistic. I beat death in it in a way, spiritually at least. That’s optimistic.
BLADE: How is your health?
WATERS: My health is fine.
BLADE: You didn’t write the book to fight death?
WATERS: Well, you write all books to fight death. I mean, I’ve never been as busy as I am. I have more projects than I’ve ever had in my entire life.
BLADE: You don’t name in the book any kind of significant other or life partner.
WATERS: And I never would. Because every person I’ve ever been involved with…doesn’t want to be public. I wouldn’t want somebody that would want to do the red carpet with me. I don’t want a groupie. I don’t want a fan. I want somebody that has their own life.
BLADE: Do you have a partner?
WATERS: Yes, I do.
BLADE: Is that in the book?
BLADE: You don’t want to say who it is?
WATERS: If you don’t keep some things private, you don’t have a personal life. It’s the same thing I say, I have some restaurant receipts that are not tax-deductible. That means I have a personal life. When I read celebrities are telling everything, I think, don’t you have any friends?
BLADE: Your book is so wide ranging it makes one wonder what you’re saving for the next one. After “Mr. Know-It-All,” what is there to write about?
WATERS: Do I have any stories left? Well, I’m writing a novel. I’m on page 64. So, yes, there’s stuff to write about.
BLADE: Is that why your next book is fiction, because you’ve exhausted the autobiography?
WATERS: I’ve written 17 movies. They‘re fiction. The first part of “Carsick” was fiction, too, except that I was in it. That makes it a lot easier. I had never written a novel, so I wanted to try it.
BLADE: Are you ever going to slow down?
WATERS: I hope not. I don’t need to slow down. I like what I’m doing. I don’t know. I guess when I drop dead, I’ll have to.
LA Blade Exclusive: L Morgan Lee, Broadway’s newest icon sings her truth
She is the first ever trans actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination & the first trans performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer
NEW YORK CITY – “I am just a girl,” L Morgan Lee tells me. That simple statement is her self-definition, a girl taking life one step at a time.
To the rest of us, L Morgan Lee is so much more. She is the award-winning actress starring on Broadway in the hit show of the season, A Strange Loop. Her singing talent matches that of any legendary diva, she is creating landmark theatrical projects on womanhood and New York Times articles are being written about her. She is the “girl” in the spotlight now.
She is also, the first ever transgender actor or actress to receive a Tony Award Nomination.
While she is not the first trans performer to be seen on a Broadway stage, she seems to have broken the glass (or some might say, cement) ceiling of being recognized in the upper echelon of talent. She is the first transgender performer to be in a work that has won a Pulitzer. While the Pulitzer recognizes the author, whom she was not, certainly her creative input was weaved into the final book of the play.
L Morgan has journeyed a complex path to self-awareness. “For me, even in terms of being trans, the idea of being anything outside of what I was assigned at birth was just laughable and crazy to me as a child,” she says. “It just, it made no sense. It was not something that I was comfortable saying out loud to anyone or voicing. How would I be looked at by my parents, by anyone else? So, I would sit and dream. The dreaming is, I think, what forms, much of so many queer people’s lives and experiences. Those dreams become our lifelines. I would dream and dream. I have a memory of when I was maybe six years old, in the middle of the night, looking up at my ceiling in my bedroom. Waking up soaked with tears. Saying, if I could wake up and be a girl, a girl, everything would be okay.” She adds. “That is why I am so excited to have gotten my first opportunity to be on Broadway, excited to have gotten a Tony nomination. Because I know that there is some kid somewhere, who is also looking up at the ceiling saying that same thing.”
L Morgan’s first adventure into performing was as a kid and ironically projected her future identity fluidity: she costumed up and performed “Karma Chameleon” in nursery school. She allowed herself to explore her true identity under the guise of a Halloween costume quite a few years later. She went in fully fashion glammed drag, and it changed her world forever. “The minute I did it, I felt a jolt of energy I had never felt before. I finally felt free in so many ways. It’s as if like it’s as if I finally got to breathe.”
When she started work on A Strange Loop, she had been cast under the assumption that she was a cisgender man playing female parts. As the years of work into the play went on, L Morgan’s transgender journey escalated, and she attempted to resign from the play as she realized she was no longer the person they thought they had hired. Not only were they aware, as many close loved ones can be, of her journey, but they embraced her and assured her that she belonged more than ever.
“The characters I played allowed me to, in some ways hide until I was able to be more public about who I am. And once I did that, it certainly brought another layer of depth to what I was doing. I have been that much more comfortable in my own skin. I’ve grown. Transition has settled in more. So, both my viewpoints about the show, the people I’m playing, and my lens of life in general, has evolved through the process. So, certainly the woman I am today, views the show and the script, and the characters I play in a very different way than I did when I first sat down to do it in 2015.”
Her growth within the show, and the growth of the show itself are intertwined. Certainly, some of the magic of the show is that it is not “performed” as much as it is lived out of the souls of the actors in it. L Morgan describes, “The experience of A Strange Loop has been beautiful, complex, layered and ever evolving, for me in particular. Every time I’ve come back to the rehearsal room with this project, my own lens has been slightly evolved or has moved forward in some ways.”
“The piece is as strong as it is because the lens itself, the lens through which the story is told, is very specific and very honest. Inside of that specificity, there are lots of complications and layers and messy stuff. There are things that you don’t ‘talk about out loud’ taboo to discuss. There are things that people see as problematic. There are so many things inside of all of that, but it’s honest and it’s human. It is a 25-year-old, who’s about to turn 26, sort of raging through life, feeling oppressed and unseen and shouting out to find how he fits into the world. It is how he can find his truest voice in a world that doesn’t really allow him to feel like he’s enough. Because it is so specific about those things the show touches so many different people.”
L Morgan demonstrated coming out as a confident transgender actress, with her vulnerabilities unhidden, on the opening night of the play and decisions she made as she stepped into the public spotlight. “I feel a responsibility. It feels like a dream, it feels wonderful. It feels exciting. It’s like everything I’ve ever asked for but the, the most poignant feeling for me is the responsibility. How could I show up for that person that needs to find me.”
“On my opening night on Broadway, we were trying to figure out what I was going to do with dress and hair and all these things. You only get a first time once. You get your debut one time. So how do I make the most of this moment? I felt raw and excited. I needed to show like the most honest and clear-cut version of me I could. I needed to show my shaved head because that’s something that’s important to me. It’s something, I almost never show. I stepped out revealed, exposed and vulnerable on the very public red carpet, speaking to cameras with my buzzed head. Our relationship with hair runs very deep, especially for trans people, and there was something about it, that just felt like, I needed to do it. That kid somewhere under the covers needs to see this trans woman who is in her Broadway debut and she’s in a pretty dress and she has a shaved head, and she seems like she’s comfortable. Then when you hear her talking about it, you hear about her vulnerability and hear that she felt nervous, and you hear that she was dealing with dysphoria and she was dealing with confidence and she was dealing with all these things that we attached to our hair and she reveals those things. Not only because they’re true but because when we reveal Our Truth, our humanness, there is universality there. There is connection inside of our vulnerability.”
While the Tony nomination escalates her Broadway experience, L Morgan does not lose sight of her mortal existence. “On the day that the Tony nominations happened, I fell apart, completely losing it in my bedroom. Then I realized, I still needed to get a couch, and clean up the apartment. I still feel regular. It’s been a wild dream and at the same time, your real life just keeps on going. I am just trying to put one foot in front of the other.”
On the night of the Tonys. L Morgan will be up against some heavy hitters. Not the least of these is Broadway Legend Patty LuPone. L Morgan is ok with that. Her dream has been to see her face in one of the camera boxes on television of the nominee hopefuls.
“The biggest reason I do, what I do is one because I love storytelling. My experience is black, my experience is trans, but I’m just, I’m just a woman. I am a woman who had a trans experience. That’s my story. I know that somewhere there’s s a kid, as I have said, who is just like I was. It is extremely important for me to make that kid proud and make that kid feel seen and make that kid know that it’s possible.”
“I want that kid to be able to know that most importantly, they already are who they are dreaming to be. The world is telling you something different, but you know who you are. There’s nothing wrong with you, there is nothing wrong with us. The world has never told us that we were an option.”
“That kid needs to find my story. They need to know that we exist. It is the reason it took me so long to be public about things and to start speaking, because I wasn’t seeing enough examples. There’s a quote, ‘she needed a hero, so that’s what she became.’ I really live by that.”
She needed to see a transwoman Tony Nominee. So that’s what she became.
When they call the winner on Tony Night, it will be between a Broadway legend and Broadway’s newest icon.
However it goes, another ceiling has been broken forever, and somewhere a trans girl in hiding will realize her dream too can come true.
For better and for worse, Oscar makes history again
The biggest queer moment of the night was Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress
HOLLYWOOD – By the time you read this, the biggest moment from this year’s Oscars will already be old news – but before we can move on to a discussion of what the wins and losses reveal about the state of LGBTQ+ representation, inclusion, and acceptance in the Hollywood film industry, we have to talk about it anyway.
When Will Smith stepped up onto that stage at the Dolby Theatre to physically assault Chris Rock – a professional comedian, doing the job he was hired to do in good faith that he would be safe from bodily harm while doing it – for making an admittedly cheap and not-very-funny joke, it was a moment of instant Oscar history that overshadowed everything else about the evening.
There’s been enough discussion about the incident that we don’t need to take up space for it here – tempting as it may be – other than to assert a firm belief that violence is never a good way to express one’s disapproval of a joke, especially during a live broadcast that is being seen by literally millions of people.
Smith, whether or not he deserved his win for Best Actor, succeeded only in making sure his achievement – which could have been a triumphant and historic moment for Black representation in Hollywood, not to mention an honorable cap for his own long and inspiring career – will be forever marred, and the palpably insincere non-apology that replaced what could otherwise have been his acceptance speech was only a textbook example of putting out fire with gasoline.
Yet that polarizing display also allows us a springboard into the much-more-important subject of queer visibility in the movies, thanks to another Smith-centered controversy (and there have been so many, really) from the early days of his career that sheds a lot of light on the homophobic attitudes of an industry almost as famous as playing to both sides of the fence as it is for the art it produces.
Back in 1993, riding his success as a hip-hop artist-turned actor and springboarding from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” fame into a movie career, Smith appeared in the film adaptation of John Guare’s critically-acclaimed play “Six Degrees of Separation,” playing a young con artist who preys on a wealthy Manhattan couple (played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing), convincing them to give them money and even move into their home before they eventually discover the truth after coming home to find him in bed with a male hustler.
Unsurprisingly (it was 1993, after all), some of the play’s homosexual content was “softened” for the film version, but Smith was still called upon to perform in a scene depicting a kiss between himself and co-star Anthony Michael Hall. After initially agreeing, he abruptly changed his mind (due to advice from friend-and-mentor Denzel Washington, who warned him that kissing a man onscreen could negatively impact his future career) and refused to do the kiss, necessitating the use of camera trickery to accomplish the scene.
Decades later, Smith expressed regret at the choice, saying it was “immature” and that he should have gone ahead with the kiss – but the story nevertheless provides some insight about the pressure placed on actors in Hollywood to appear heterosexual for their audiences, no matter what.
Despite advancements, that pressure continues today – and Smith, whose unorthodox and publicly rocky marriage already has put him under an arguably unfair microscope, has also been alleged (most notoriously by trans actress Alexis Arquette, who made controversial comments about the couple shortly before her death in 2016) to be participating in a sham marriage in an effort to conceal both his own and his wife’s queer sexuality, may well have been feeling it when he was moved to assert his masculinity at the Academy Awards.
True or not, such rumors still have the potential for ruining careers in Hollywood; and while it may be a facile oversimplification to assume that homophobia was behind Smith’s ill-advised breach of decorum, it’s nevertheless a topic that goes straight to the heart of why the Academy, even in 2022, has such an abysmal track record for rewarding – or even including – openly queer actors on Oscar night.
Granted, things have improved, at least in terms of allowing queerness to be on display at the ceremony. On Sunday night, out Best Actress nominee Kristen Stewart attended with her fiancée, Dylan Miller, with the couple sharing a public kiss on the red carpet as they arrived for the festivities; the trio of female hosts – which included out woman of color Wanda Sikes alongside fellow comedians Amy Schumer and Regina Hall – called out Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill with a defiant joke during their opening presentation.
Jessica Chastain – who won Best Actress for playing unlikely LGBTQ ally and AIDS advocate Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye” – made an emotional speech decrying anti-LGBTQ legislation and advocating for all people to be “accepted for who we are, accepted for who we love, and to live a life without the fear of violence or terror.”
Numerous participants in the evening, whether male or female, queer or straight, took the opportunity to push gender boundaries with their couture for the evening (thanks for that, Timothée Chalamet). Elliot Page, joining Jennifer Garner and JK Simmons for a “Juno” reunion, became the first trans man to be a presenter at the Academy Awards. Finally, two beloved queer icons shared the stage for the evening’s finale, as Lady Gaga was joined by wheelchair-bound Liza Minnelli, frail but full of obvious joy at being there, to present the award for Best Picture.
The biggest queer moment of the night, of course, was also one of the first: Ariana DeBose’s historic win as the first out woman to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Accepting the award (for which she was considered by far the front-runner), De Bose proudly highlighted her queerness alongside her other intersecting identities, saying “You see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina, who found her strength and life through art. And that is, I think, what we’re here to celebrate.”
The evening’s other queer nominees did not fare so well. “Flee,” the Danish documentary about a gay Afghan refugee’s escape from his homeland as a teen, made history by scoring triple nominations as Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature, and Best Animated Feature, but it went home empty-handed. Stewart – the only other openly queer acting nominee – lost to Chastain for Best Actress, and the divisive but queer-themed “Power of the Dog” lost its bid for Best Picture to “CODA,” as well as all of its multiple acting nominations – though its director, Jane Campion, already the first woman to be nominated twice for the Best Director Prize, became the third woman to actually win it.
Of course, the Oscar, like any other award, should be bestowed upon the most deserving nominee regardless of sexuality, gender, or any other “identity” status, and it seems unreasonable to expect all the queer nominees to win – though some might feel a little reparative favoritism wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing when it comes to balancing the scales. Even so, nobody has a chance to win if they’re not even nominated, and that’s where Oscar has repeatedly and persistently fallen short.
According to a recent report from Professor Russell Robinson, Faculty Director of Berkeley Law’s Center on Race, Sexuality & Culture, analysis of more than half a century of Academy Award acting nominations reveals that out of 68 nominations (and 14 wins) for performers playing LGBTQ roles, only two nominees – neither of whom went on to win – were LGBTQ-identified in real life.
While actors like Tom Hanks (“Philadelphia”), Sean Penn (“Milk”), Penélope Cruz (“Parallel Mothers” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), and the late William Hurt (“Kiss of the Spider Woman”) garnered career-boosting acclaim along with their Oscars for playing queer characters, there are no equivalent success stories for queer actors playing straight roles – indeed, only eight openly queer performers have gotten a nomination for ANY role, queer or otherwise, in the entire history of the Oscars, and no transgender performers have ever received one at all.
While one might believe statistics like this are at least beginning to change, bear in mind that both of Benedict Cumberbatch’s two Oscar nods so far were for playing gay men, including this year’s “Power of the Dog” (the first was for playing real-life queer hero Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game”).
The topic of whether straight actors playing queer characters is appropriate at all is of course a hotly-debated one, with reasonable arguments – and queer voices in support of them – on both sides. We won’t attempt an in-depth examination of that issue here, but what is obvious even without the above statistics is that the Academy – or rather, looking at it from a wider scope, Hollywood itself – has a deeply-ingrained prejudice against queerness, regardless of how loudly it proclaims itself to be an ally.
Yes, progress has undeniably been achieved, especially within the last few years; the strong showing of films like “Moonlight,” “Call Me By Your Name,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and other LGBTQ-oriented titles on recent Oscar nights has gone neither unnoticed nor unappreciated.
Yet the Academy – as well as the industry it represents – has a pattern of responding to criticism over its inclusiveness in half-measures. It takes more than a hashtag to end sexual harassment of women in the workplace, no matter how many times it’s flashed on the screen during an awards show, and it takes more than a token nomination every few years to give an underrepresented population a fair place at the table, too.
This year’s ceremony was not without its missteps. The choice to bump awards from the broadcast for time while simultaneously devoting minutes to a James Bond tribute or a performance of a song (“We Don’t Talk About Bruno” from Disney’s “Encanto”) that wasn’t even nominated; accompanying the annual “In Memoriam” tribute to the year’s dearly departed with a choreographed dance and vocal performance; the insensitivity of rushing some winners (like “Drive My Car” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, accepting when his film won for Best International Feature) to finish their speeches while letting others continue uninterrupted; these and other ill-considered decisions had already blemished the show before “the slap heard ‘round the world” ever happened.
Nevertheless, this Oscar show felt more authentic than many in recent memory. There was a raw, unpredictable quality to it, perhaps rooted in the Academy’s controversial choice to relegate several “lesser” awards to a pre-show presentation, that manifested itself in the uncomfortable response of the audience to the often sharp humor of hostesses Sikes, Schuman, and Hall – who mercilessly skewered Hollywood’s say-one-thing-do-another approach to sexism, racism, homophobia and more throughout the show, often with visible apprehension over how their jokes might land.
Nervousness notwithstanding, their presence and their comedic calling-out of industry hypocrisy, along with the willingness of the celebrities in the house to laugh about it, was an element that lifted the proceedings enough to make them not only bearable, but sometimes even enjoyable.
That doesn’t mean the Academy can rest on its laurels. While it’s become common for their awards show – and all the others, for that matter – to serve as a kind of celebrity roast, where jokes are made and laughed at about the industry’s hot-button issue of the day, the persistent problems in Hollywood can’t be corrected just by allowing its workers to blow off steam by making fun of them once a year.
The film industry thinks that by going along with self-mocking humor about its own misogyny, racism, and homophobia, it gets a pass to continue ignoring the growing demand from the public to eliminate those same toxic ingredients from its standard recipe.
Perhaps the Smith incident, based as it seems to have been in a show of masculine dominance, will prompt some soul-searching within the entertainment community over its own rampant hypocrisy. Let’s hope so, because if the Academy Awards are ever to be truly inclusive in their representation of every segment of our society, no matter who they are or who they love, that’s something that has to happen first in the movies their prizes are meant to honor.
We’ve come a long way, to be sure, but we’re not there yet.
Jessica Chastain Accepts the Oscar for Lead Actress:
First openly queer woman of color, Ariana DeBose wins an Oscar
It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD – North Carolina native Ariana DeBose, who identifies as a Black-biracial queer Afro-Latina, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress Sunday for her portrayal of Anita in Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of West Side Story.
The film was based on the 1957 Tony award-winning Broadway musical production directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents.
DeBose in the category for Best Supporting Actress has previously won a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA. She was awarded the Oscar over her fellow nominees in the category including Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard, Kirsten Dunst for The Power of The Dog, Jessie Buckley for The Lost Daughter, and Dame Judi Dench for Belfast.
“Imagine this little girl in the back seat of a white Ford Focus. When you look into her eyes, you see an openly queer woman of color, an Afro Latina, who found her strength in life through art. And that’s what I believe we’re here to celebrate,” DeBose said in her acceptance speech.
“So to anybody who’s ever questioned your identity ever, ever, ever or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us,” she added.
It was DeBose’s first academy award nomination and Oscar. The awards ceremony was held at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and were hosted by Out lesbian comedian Wanda Sykes, actors Regina Hall and Amy Schumer.
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